Thursday, December 31, 2009

HighTower Featured in Forbes


A New Firm Lures Brokers from Big Wall Street Houses
Matthew Schifrin, 01.18.10, 12:00 AM ET

Stockbrokers, a.k.a. financial advisors, were always the other guys on Wall Street, watching their colleagues in the trading and investment banking departments rake in huge bonuses while they were wearing out their fingertips with cold calls. The recent turmoil on Wall Street--the deaths of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, the struggles of Merrill Lynch and Wachovia's brokerage unit-- has made their lives worse. Brokers find themselves having to explain to clients why they should entrust money to the firms that employ them.

"I don't think there are many brokers out there who wouldn't tell you that they feel disenfranchised," says Mindy Diamond, president of recruiting firm Diamond Consultants.

Solution: Break free. The broker or a gang of brokers sets up a new firm to help clients invest. The breakaway broker can use products (like exchange-traded funds) wherever they might come from, clearing services from one firm and custody from yet another.

In 2009 Schwab helped 156 groups of stockbrokers break free of big firms, setting up registered investment advisory firms. Fidelity attracted 185 brokers, and Pershing brought in 32 new RIAs to its custodial platform. TD Ameritrade Institutional attracted 170 advisor groups.

Possibly the most compelling of the new opportunities for breakaway brokers is a Chicago firm called HighTower. It offers brokers with at least $100 million under management what it describes as an "open source" alternative to firms like Merrill and Morgan Stanley Smith Barney.

In the brokerage business so-called open architecture has been around since the 1980s, when Charles Schwab & Co. began allowing independent advisors to choose from a host of investment managers and products. HighTower's two founders, Elliot Weissbluth and Drew Kornreich, expanded this model so that brokers affiliating with their firm also have the ability to choose from various custody firms, including JPMorgan Chase and Schwab, and clearing firms like Pershing and Fidelity's National Financial.

This innovative business model caught the attention of David Pottruck, former chief executive of Charles Schwab. In 2004 Pottruck was unceremoniously ousted from that job and went into exile. Pottruck, 62, decided he wanted back in. So he, along with Philip Purcell, former chief executive of Morgan Stanley and Dean Witter; New York financier Morris Offit; the fund vendor Franklin Templeton; and several others invested $65 million to help get HighTower going in April 2008. In December 2009 Credit Suisse subsidiary Asset Management Finance led a financing round that injected $100 million in capital to pay bonuses to brokers signing on.

One of the first big producers to sign on in 2008 came from Morgan Stanley. The Bapis Group, run by Nicholas Bapis and his two adult children out of Salt Lake City and New York City, brought in $700 million.

"The benefit of having multiple investment managers, custodians and clearing firms all competing for our advisors' business is that you get to drive down costs and increase quality and empower the advisor to be the quarterback for his clients," says Pottruck.

So far HighTower has attracted $16 billion in assets spread over eight offices. Larry Gilbert, 40, was a heavy hitter in Goldman Sachs' private wealth group in Chicago before he joined HighTower in February 2009. "I left Goldman because I wanted to be a true fiduciary," says Gilbert. He says Goldman's pay was structured to encourage advisors to sell Goldman products first. "During the financial crisis these products didn't hold up," he says. Goldman denies Gilbert's claims.

HighTower brokers also run their own profit-and-loss statements, so instead of keeping 30% to 40% of gross fee production in W-2 earnings, they reap the benefit of all revenue associated with their clients, including interest spreads earned by lending idle cash in cash-rich accounts to other clients buying on margin. After paying their own expenses, they are typically left with 70% to 80% of their revenue, which they split with HighTower. Another draw is that its advisors own 25% of the equity of HighTower and have a real say in how things are run. "This model isn't fully baked. We need their help," says Chief Executive Weissbluth, 42.

For Pottruck, who recently announced that he would become cochairman of the firm, it appears as if this could be his second coming. Says Pottruck, "It is now the full-time focus of my energy. So after four years I find myself back in financial services and having a lot of fun."

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Flashpoint Academy delivers a baker’s dozen of Howcast videos

Hot stuff: Flashpoint Academy delivers a baker’s dozen of Howcast videos

Posted on December 28th, 2009 in Emerging Filmmakers, Playlist | Permalink

From puppets on drugs to a colorful Michel Gondry-like sequence, Flashpoint Academy students have been uploading some impressive Howcast videos this semester through an ongoing partnership between the school and the Howcast Emerging Filmmakers Program. The EFP has joined forces with film and television programs at Boston University, Charles Sturt University, and Flashpoint to expose students to web video production, increase student awareness of opportunities online, and provide real-world experience working for clients.

For their second semester producing Howcast videos, their professor, Peter Hawley, chair of film/broadcast, requested we assign his students more challenging topics. His class, “Producing for the Corporate Client,” was given a series of our public-service-announcement style scripts covering issues like How To Know if Your Boyfriend is Abusive, How To Cope with Your Parents’ Divorce, and How To Amend the U.S Constitution.

“The topics Howcast selected were challenging. Students had to stretch beyond their comfort zones in order to deliver a quality finished film. I am thrilled with the finished results. In many instances the students produced not just good student work, but good professional work, the ultimate goal of the class,” Professor Hawley told me.

At the start of the semester, the students were split into teams of four or five. We started with a live video chat where I introduced the topics and Emerging Filmmakers Program (EFP) guidelines. In EFP, Howcast provides vetted scripts, prerecorded voice-overs, a graphics package, and royalty-free music tracks, and we encourage students to be as creative as possible envisioning how to shoot and edit their spots. An additional challenge for these Flashpoint students, aside from the aggressive deadline their professor gave them, was to produce creative videos that viewers would enjoy watching, yet be sensitive to the problems addressed in the scripts. These PSA-style scripts had been set aside for quite a while until we could find the right filmmakers to tackle them. It was a bit of a leap of faith assigning them to unknown student filmmakers — but we were so impressed with how they handled them.

The Flashpoint filmmakers took a refreshing approach and experimented with unique styles. Throughout the semester, we checked in with ongoing video chats and by the course’s end, they turned out the largest delivery of Howcast videos produced by a university class — 13 … and counting!

As Peter said: “What I like about this class, and what I like about working with Howcast in particular, is the fact that students must adhere to the guidelines set out by the client. This not only models the real world, it is the real world.”

Take a few minutes to watch the work of all 13 groups of talented Flashpoint Academy students.

In the batch you’ll see unique editing techniques, an office staffed by stuffed animals, impressive performances, and just the right touch of humor to get audiences thinking.

-Heather Menicucci
Managing Producer, Emerging Filmmakers Program

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